Monday, October 01, 2007

Israel moves towards decriminalising drug posession

In stark contrast to the populist tough-on-drugs bidding war currently consuming UK policy thinking in the run up to the (probably) imminent election, over in Israel, a traditionally far more conservative country than here, the general inspector of the Israeli Police, Dudi Cohen, has announced that police will no longer arrest first-time drug users in an effort to refocus drug law enforcement. The move comes as Israeli police reported they made more than 16,000 drug possession arrests and more than 8,000 drug sales arrests last year. The move appears to have a similar motivation to some police calls for the de-prioritisation or de-penalisation of possession offences in the UK: they are a drain on resources that produce no tangible benefits.

Israeli drug use levels are generally in line with those of Europe and North America. According to the UN Office on Drug Control's 2007 World Drug Report, 8.5% of Israelis smoke marijuana in a given year, placing them just below the more pot-friendly European nations (Cyprus, 14.1%; Italy and Spain, 11.2%; Switzerland 9.6%), as well as the US (12.6%) and Canada (16.8%). But for cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and ecstasy, Israeli usage levels hover squarely in the Western middle, with prevalence rates around 1%.

The shift in enforcement will begin with a pilot program for juvenile offenders, police said. The announcement came days after a widely-viewed documentary critical of the futility of the drug war appeared on Israeli television.

Also similar to the now abandoned clause 2 of UK 2005 drugs Act, under the new Israeli policy, people caught with "personal use" quantities of illegal drugs for the first time will be documented, but not arrested. (The quantities idea was abandoned in the UK on the grounds of its impracticality). In Israel the quantities are proposed to be set as follows:

Cannabis (herbal)
15 grams
Cannabis (resin)
15 grams
Opium 2 grams
LSD 3 stamps
Ecstasy 3 pills
Cocaine 0.3 grams
Heroin 0.3 grams

Sounding very similar to much UK police rhetoric Cohen said: "We are not talking about the legalisation of drugs," ... "But we will focus on the dealers and not the consumers."

"The General Inspector prefers to dry up the swamp instead of killing the mosquitoes one at a time," elaborated a senior officer in Intelligence and Investigations, the department which Cohen leads. "The system's new attitude toward users won't affect the popular drug use trends. Traditionally, when we stopped a student we caught for a first-time offense, he'd be delayed, brought to the station in a police car and would wait to be dealt with until a police officer was available to process his case; he'd endure a long interrogation and finally we'd look for a responsible party to come bail him out. The result was almost an entire day of police work dedicated to a file that would almost never lead to an indictment."

That amounted to a "useless investment" of police time, the officer said. Prosecuting all those drug cases resulted in a flood of cases for prosecutors that clogged the courts and took years to resolve, he added. Besides, he said, first-time drug offenders could be scared enough by police contact alone to change their ways. For those who don't, there is always the criminal justice system. "For most of those caught for the first-time, any contact with the police creates fear, explained the officer. When it comes to someone who's not a first-time offender, but that this is his way of life, we will prosecute him to the full extent of the law because he might drive under the influence or steal to pay for his drug use."

While the Green Leaf Party, which seeks cannabis legalisation, welcomed the development, it was doubtful about the impact of the new policy and vowed to continue to work for an end to prohibition in the Jewish state.

"It is not clear to us that this will benefit marijuana users in any way, as once you've been stopped once, the second time they are free to arrest you," said Michelle Levine, a Green Leaf spokesperson. "They claim they are doing this to get the focus back on the distributors, though they've never focused on the distributors before. Furthermore, the police statement acknowledges that they will still interrogate first-time offenders when stopping them and recording their details for future interactions. That means they may ask them who their distributors are -- pressuring them to give names. The only difference at all is the first time a smoker is caught by the police with a small quantity, he will not actually be taken down to the station or charged, as is now the case," she said.

Green Leaf will continue to work for legalisation, said Levine. "The Green Leaf Party is very busy with many projects right now, as we're organizing the 2nd Joint Arab Israeli Conference for Marijuana Policy and Peace, but we will not let up on the police for wasting taxpayer money on the drug war and we will not let up on our elected officials while nonviolent patriotic citizens rot in jail for marijuana offenses."

The Israeli police, for their part, will continue to fight drug trafficking. A new unit for the Negev region will work to seal the Jordanian border, which police describe as the major drug terminal for heroin and hashish being trafficked from Afghanistan. Another unit patrolling the Lebanese border will be reformed to concentrate on blocking Lebanese hash, as well as Afghan heroin and South American cocaine.

Story from Drug War Chronicles (some small edits)

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